Last week we speculated on what Harry Styles’ new single would sound like. Our conclusion? An R&B flavoured slow jam, probably laden with sugary lyrics about a girl he’s crushing on, left intentionally vague so any old listener can imagine it’s them Styles is swooning over. So were we right? Well, half right, in that, you know, it is quite a slow song, I guess.
But now the wait’s over, it’s time to ask – was it worth it? ‘Sign Of The Times’ starts with a plodding piano rhythm, and it’s with a dawning dread that you realise that we’re in Coldplay territory here, thinking that surely Styles isn’t going to squander his debut on a dirgey piano ballad, surely there is more to come. And thankfully, there is. Sort of. Once the drums kick in, things make a bit more sense, the track quickly establishing itself as a modern power ballad, all big percussion and screeching guitar.
What really sticks out on ‘Sign Of The Times’ is Styles’ vocals. He sounds pretty superb here, cool and romantic during the verses and then letting rip on the chorus, a big, bombastic bit of pop/rock. It’s over-inflated, sure, but it builds nicely towards its crescendo finale, cinematic and climactic, Styles belting out the words with gusto, intense in a closed-eyes, mic-clutching, smoke machine kind of way.
But while ‘Sign Of The Times’ does have a fair bit going for it, there’s the feeling that this is ultimately more hot air than substance, a little package of not very much wrapped up in layers and layers of guitars, drums and sing-shouting to disguise the fact there’s not a great deal to sink your teeth into. Lyrically, the track relies on vague platitudes about escape and running away as well as by-the-numbers boy band metaphors that don’t really stand up to scrutiny. In fact, this sounds like it could have been One Direction’s 2020 reunion single, a grown-up ballad to tack onto the end of a greatest hits compilation.
Realistically, an overblown soft rock ballad was Styles’ safest option for a debut single, though. Too clean to pull off a moody R&B jam a la Zayn and too good to waste on a flimsy dance single a la Louis, Harry’s rough-round-the-edges voice is better suited to a rockier track, and something that calls to mind the likes of Bon Jovi and Aersosmith is likely to keep the mums on side too. While not the genre-defying, era-defining pop song we were hoping for, ‘Sign Of The Times’ makes sense as Styles’ first step in a solo career that will hopefully have bigger surprises in store.